Top 10 Tips for Coping on Holiday with an Eating Disorder
For most individuals, the promise of sun, sea, sand, an adventurous road trip, or a flight to a faraway lands sends them into a flurry of excitement. Likewise, the prospect of going on holiday makes the majority shimmer with a golden glow before they’ve even had a chance to nestle themselves into a sun-adorned deck chair.
However, if you have ever been ‘fortunate’ enough to have endured an eating disorder or any form of unhealthy relationship with food and body, any excitement may be overshadowed by a soggy tsunami of fear, anxiety and over-thinking. Where most people usually travel with another person for yourself you may face taking along an additional and unwanted member of the party - your life meddling eating disorder.
Instead of looking forward to relaxing, trying new foods, or creating new memories, you might be ruminating about how on bloody earth you are going to be able to manage your recovery, navigate a whole new food environment, fit in suitable meals and snacks around a hectic schedule, and consume unknown Calorie items - all the while being surrounded by overwhelming and limitless opportunities to eat around other people.
Aside from any language differences, perhaps the strangest foreign thing you have to encounter is the numerous non-controlled food items, situations that involve exposing your body, bamboozling time differences, and adjusting to routines that don’t follow the orderly schedule that you’re so used to rigidly following back at home…
If this sounds a little bit like you, then don’t despair. After my own fair share of holidays from hell (also due to the pitfalls of struggling with an eating disorder abroad) I’m here to share my top 10 tips on how to stick with your recovery mission as well as even levelling up your recovery while travelling. Yep, that means embracing the opportunity to create new positive memories and level up your recovery, while saying a fond fork full farewell to the prospect of carrying a ton load of meal replacements and ‘safe’ snacks. Believe me when I say, from personal experience, that paying for an extra suit case filled with meal replacement drinks and ‘healthy’ snacks is NOT a good idea!
Whether you are about to venture to another country, embark on a road trip, or even stay in a different city for a few days, the following tips can help you to ensure that you are able to stay on track with your recovery goals rather than be triggered to submit back into the deceitful arms of your eating disorder.
1) Tell someone about your struggles and get them on board with supporting you during the trip
Whether you go away with a partner, friend or a group of family members, it can be a great help to the holiday to have someone who understands your circumstances. Sharing details of your situation and plans for recovery can enable individuals to look out for you when you most need it, and also be aware of still ensuring to make time for meals, snacks and regular breaks. They can also assist in keeping you accountable with your recovery goals, while ensuring that you refrain from jeopardising your wellbeing through over walking, obsessively exercising, not keeping hydrated or skipping meals.
Even if support doesn’t come in the physical form of someone sitting with you for meals or helping you to make decisions around food, having someone around (or even someone you can contact by phone) who you can openly talk to about how you’re feeling can be a great stress and anxiety reliever that aids rather than sabotages your recovery .
2) Reduce as much anxiety around the trip as possible
If there’s one thing that heightens the urge to engage in restrictive eating disorder related behaviours its anxiety. Unfortunately, despite how fun holidays can be, the planning, travelling and decision making involved can lead even the most calmest of individuals to fly off handle. If you know that you too tend to feel an urge to restrict when feeling anxious, especially when travelling, try to reduce this by ensuing that you are well organised for your trip. This can simply involve making sure you pack your suitcase a couple of days beforehand, arriving to the airport 2-3 hours before boarding, and making a list of this things you need to take with you. Some airports also have several cafes and waiting areas that are more relaxing to sit in than the hustle and bustle near the entrance to terminals!
Of course such planning might make you feel tempted to become rigid around exactly what and where you are going to eat, but instead aim to plan a rough guide to your holiday that helps you feel more relaxed rather than obligated to tick 101 things off a rigid to do list. Another thing to take to help reduce anxiety is a roll on form of essential oil blend, such as lavender, rose or neroli. Whether these types of oils work biologically, psychologically, or both, having something soothing to smell can help with feeling more relaxed and activating parts of the brain in a way that helps you to feel calmer (just make sure you pack it in a clear plastic bag if travelling by plane!)
3) Always carry fluid a few energy dense snacks around with you in your bag / carry on luggage and whilst on trips out
While away, it is unlikely that you will always be able to follow an exact time routine around meals and snacks. While this makes holidays a great opportunity to kick rigid habits in the head, its also important to ensure that you still have some food available on you at all/most of the time. Sometimes you never know whether you’re going to get stuck out on a trip, lodged in a long queue, stuck in a traffic jam, or feeling exhausted after a lot of walking in temperatures you are not used to. If you are walking a lot, you might also benefit from having a few additional snacks (scary as it sounds, but can be hugely important).
This might simply be in the form of your favourite snack/energy bars, or some sweets. Chocolate is also a great option, unless you are going somewhere hot, and like me end up experiencing a messy bag full of molten cocoa ! You can also bring an empty refillable bottle that you can regularly top up with water, juice tea or any other fluid. Personally, I additionally carry a mini concentrated squeezy juice bottle that acts as a flavouring to water (making it much easier to drink if water tastes different to where you are used to). Just make sure to always obtain water from sources that you know are thoroughly clean to avoid infection.
4) Find out the types of restaurants and snack/cafe locations where you are visiting, and gauge an idea of the things that are on offer
Ok, so this piece of advice might seem a little controversial, especially if part of your trip is about challenging yourself to eat spontaneously and not spend most of your time menu checking or planning exactly where and when you will be eating. However, rather than being overly rigid or fully spontaneous, you might prefer to find some middle ground. That middle ground can involve being aware of the types of foods and places you will have access to, so rather than menu checking and trying to plan out exactly what you can and can’t eat, you can simply prepare yourself ahead of time to accept what challenges might be placed in front of you. For example, you might feel reassured that there are several pizza restaurants and cafes near where you are staying, and that there are plenty of things off of their menus to choose from.
If you have any dietary requirements due to an allergy, or are vegetarian, there is also the option of ringing where you are staying to see if they have any suitable options for you, or encouraging them to prepare for your arrival by stocking up on suitable ingredients. You could even set yourself some food-related challenges beforehand if you know that you are more than likely to be visiting a certain type or restaurant / cafe.
5) Take distraction activities and techniques
This tip coincides with tip number 2. Whether you are experiencing anxiety over travelling or what you are eating and how much/little you are exercising, distraction activities can be a haven away from self-destructive thoughts and urges to engage in restrictive behaviours. For example, you may wish to take along a few books to read, colouring activities, puzzles and magazines. You can also download some music, podcasts or similar forms of entertainment to your phone / digital device. I also love to travel with a notepad, so that I can record some of my thoughts and experiences, as well as jot down any new ideas for upcoming blogs and creative pursuits.
Having something to hand is a more reliable way of switching off from negative thoughts and feelings much, rather than relying on activities that may or may not be available in your location of travel or even on the plane. Speaking of which, if you are flying, taking along a pair of your own headphones (preferably noise cancelling) as well as an eyemask, blanket scarf and pillow can really help you to set yourself in chill out mode. I also love to take along some mini skin care products for the plane journey (e.g. facial wipes, toner and some moisturiser) so that I can distract myself and use some time up by pampering myself with a comforting skin care routine.
6) Say yes to showing your body rather than covering up
If travelling somewhere sunny and warm, theres a strong chance that there will be some expectations to go swimming, lounge in some swim wear, or at least wear less clothing than you may be used to. As someone who may have a long list of insecurities around their body, the idea of any of these things might bring a wave of panic. In these situations, its helpful to take a step back and think of what you’d really like to enjoy by going away. Do you really want to spend the day boiling hot or missing out on opportunities to have fun by the sea or with loved ones because of your body?
With your answer, you can start to think about how perhaps you can throw some caution to the wind, and set a new intention of learning to expose your body more without the usual negative judgement and fear of what others think. I’m 99.9% certain that most other people will be thinking of their own self-image rather than what your body looks like - matter whether you feel too slim, too big, or just generally ‘inadequate’. If exposing yourself still feels scary and off limits, you can still prepare yourself by packing more loose fitting clothes that can keep you cool, or take a step in the direction of wearing a little less clothing that you would normally (e.g. favouring a short sleeved rather than long sleeved baggy top, and shorts rather than jeans).
Even if you feel unable to step foot into swim wear at a pool, still ensure that you find time for activities that you genuinely enjoy. Don’t allow thoughts about your body to manipulate you into missing out on life and new opportunities. Sometimes we literally have to dive in at the deep end on holiday, even if it means stripping down into small shorts, crop tops and sleeveless garments.
7) Adjust to your new time zone without skipping meals
If you are travelling between time zones in a way that means being set back or forward several hours than your used to, adjusting to this may make you fearful around how it will affect your meal times. For example, if travelling somewhere that is 5 hours behind you and travelling on an early morning flight for 10 hours to get to your destination, you may be wondering whether or not to post pone breakfast and snacks, to the point where you only eat when most people in the new time zone would wake up for food. This might seem ok, but in the process of trying to achieve that, you may be going several hours without food, and end up feeling tempted to restrict more throughout the day or throughout the upcoming holiday.
To help with situations like these, you can alternatively choose to have several snacks to hand (equivalent to a full meal or more) that you can eat at regular intervals. Even if you arrive somewhere in the afternoon, but you would normally by that time be ready for bed, still try to eat something rather than walk around hungry for hours.
If you have travelled sitting down for a long time, there may also be some temptation to compensate by restricting and using the change of time zone as an excuse, but there is no excuse to not eat. I like to alternatively think that my body needs more energy during the time of travel, not only because its usually so tiring, but also because my body will probably be active and alert for longer than it normally would be if I was back home. Even if by the end of the day I eat over 3000 Calories, I have an “I don’t give a dam” attitude because I know whole heartedly that this will not matter one tiny bit in the grand scheme of my life. If anything, worrying about it would only tarnish the experience of travel, while confirming to your worried mind that restriction and control is important in order to maintain order and balance in your life.
8) Try to stick with still consuming 3 meals and 3 snacks per day, but throw specific times out the window!
Holidays are times for spontaneity and not feeling limited by structure. However, there is a fine balance to achieve if you are still in recovery and need to keep your energy levels stable. Regardless of your current weight, its also important not to skip meals - it would be like giving a bottle of wine to a recovering alcoholic. Even if you are moving time zones, you can adjust yourself by still consuming several snacks while you adjust, and then making time to become much more flexible around your usual eating routine.
For example, you may find that the new culture you are in involves eating a little earlier or later. You might also want to add in more snacks due to expending more energy walking and being exposed to extreme temperatures. Ultimately, the aim with this tip is to find a structure that works for you - a balance of continuing to eat regularly, while also allowing plenty of room to in between set times.
9) Challenge yourself to food items that represent the country / state / culture where you are travelling to
The holidays that are least memorable are usually the ones where we stick by our usual routines and don’t dare to try new things. This is especially the case since eating different foods are distinctly attached to the memories we are able to make. How sad it would be if we filled our holiday with eating the same safe snacks and types of meals - all the new experiences we had would more than likely melt into one confusing mess. When away on holiday, to avoid getting stuck in a rut and to also LEVEL UP your recovery game, you can make a commitment to challenge yourself to new foods.
Experiencing new places are much more exciting and fun when you try to immerse yourself as much as possible in their culture. This may mean cosying up in a cafe in France to sip on a gorgeous cappuccino alongside a freshly baked croissant, trying out an authentic pizza and pasta restaurant in Italy, or munching a pasty along the Cornish coast of England. The possibilities are literally endless. When you start living life to the fullest, holidays bring opportunities to create memories that fondly intertwine with pleasurable food experiences - Calories, rigid routines and ‘shoulds’ about what and what not to eat simply don’t appear in the equation.
If this sounds like something you would like to do more of, you can set yourself a challenge while away to eat as many culturally related fear foods as possible. For example, while soon traveling to Disney world, it is my mission to eat as many Micky shaped items and cinnamon flavoured sweet items as possible!
10) Make a plan to reward yourself for your efforts
Going away on holiday with an eating disorder can be a very challenging time, where your recovery orientated resources are really put to the test. Sometimes it may feel like a battle, but through the shear determination of pushing through and making a pledge to choose life over an eating disorder, you definitely deserve to commend yourself. To mark a new stage in your recovery and the challenges you accomplish, you can set aside some time to reward yourself for your efforts. This might involve purchasing a special charm for a charm bracelet, a souvenir from where you are staying, or just about anything that feels good to you.
Rewards also play a significant role in the recovery process, as they symbolise that you are worth treating and deserve to experience life in its most beautiful and enjoyable forms. Rewarding behaviours that fuel your life, rather than an eating disorder, is one huge step in the direction of beginning to reach your full potential as a human being and realising that you are ALWAYS worth love, joy and recovery.
Ultimately ..... any holiday or trip you experience is an opportunity to RECLAIM your life back and develop a healthier relationship with food and body. Don’t use the holiday as an opportunity to restrict, but instead as an opportunity to LEVEL UP your recovery!